Is Labour about to collaborate with David Cameron in letting Murdoch off the hook over the Leveson proposals for media reform and regulation? 

I ask after hearing the estimable general secretary of the National Union of Journalists, Michelle Stanistreet, spelling out the careful evidence-based way in which her union approached its ground-breaking decision to support media regulation, at an NUJ meeting last week.  The decision required both caution and courage, because the NUJ generally sides with the proprietors in opposing regulation, and Stanistreet still has many members who think regulation is the first step on the road to the gulag.  

Actually, it’s because we care about media freedom that we support regulation. Stanistreet illustrated this when she told us that NUJ members with tales of newsroom bullying and being pressurised into writing stories in ways they considered unfair were too frightened to allow her to use their names at the Leveson enquiry – and that she’d had other journalists from the Daily Mail on the phone, trying to wheedle the names out of her.  Now, it’s possible that they were doing so because they thought there was a public interest in the names being known.  It’s also possible that the office wanted a list of unreliable journalists – that they were seeking, not to defend media freedom, but to suppress it by making it clear to dissident journalists that there was a price to be paid.

Here’s another example, from Professor Brian Cathcart’s magnificent little book Hacked Off. The Daily Express secretly placed journalist Peter Wilby under surveillance, soon after Wilby described the Express as “a hopeless newspaper that couldn’t tell you the time of day.”  No story about Wilby resulted.  Did the Express simply want to tell anyone attacking it that there could be consequences?

At the NUJ meeting, Helen Goodman MP, who speaks for Labour on media reform, outlined the progress of multi-party negotiations over the final shape of regulation.  They’re going to end up with something really tortuous – a Royal Charter under which an Appointments Committee appoints a Recognition Panel which checks on the means of appointing a regulator.  It’s being made clumsy in the vain hope of appeasing newspaper proprietors.

Goodman is rightly concerned that the Royal Charter can be amended by the Privy Council.  Keeping it away from Parliament is supposed to keep it out of the hands of politicians.  But all it actually does is keep it out of the hands of lower-ranking politicians – Prime Ministers can get anything they want from the Privy Council.  She’s also right to worry that the appointments committee will include representatives of media proprietors, though not of rank and file journalists. And she’s angry that, while Leveson wanted a complaint to be free, the government wants it to be “inexpensive.”  What’s inexpensive to David Cameron could be a fortune to most of us.

These are proper concern s.  But in the midst of this thicket of trees and hedges, I worry that Goodman is losing sight of the wood.  The big picture is that unless there are penalties for proprietors who do dreadful things, dreadful things will continue to get done.  I don’t just mean surveillance, or phone hacking, or libel, though newspaper proprietors will continue to do all three if they think they can get away with it.  I also mean secretly taking and publishing topless pictures of a young woman who does not want you to take them and does not know she is not in private, or twisting the news to suit the commercial interests of the proprietor, or harassing and intimidating people who have ever had any sort of connection with celebrities, or libelling people because you know they cannot afford to sue.  Read Brian Cathcart’s booklet for the appalling details. 

It’s on that issue that Goodman started to wobble.  I tried three times to get an assurance that Labour would accept nothing less than statutory underpinning with penalties.  I got a sort of assurance on the third time of asking.   But she was very concerned to do everything she could to get an agreed cross-party deal, and I fear she may be willing to pay too high a price for it.